Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Kevin Johnson’s turn on the national stage is a boon for Sacramento

Marcos Breton
Marcos Breton

What a time it has been for Mayor Kevin Johnson.

By week’s end, he was hailed in The New York Times as the force behind the NBA decision to ban Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for making racist statements that were caught on tape.

“It is apparent that the league’s response was shaped as much by the influence of a player turned politician who has no official affiliation with the NBA as it was by (NBA Commissioner Adam) Silver’s conviction,” wrote Harvey Araton in Friday’s Times.

“Kevin Johnson, a former NBA star who is now the mayor of Sacramento, was able to channel the growing anger among the league’s players and made clear to Silver the types of steps that needed to be taken to keep the situation from veering out of control.”

This was no coincidence.

Johnson’s sudden involvement in a national story that raged for days was much like his emergence as Sacramento mayor: He came out of nowhere to be perfectly positioned when the lights and cameras turned on him. Then he used his celebrity and his ability to influence to get what he wanted.

When he held a news conference to deliver player reaction to the NBA’s ban on Sterling, he outshined everyone on stage. On Tuesday in Los Angeles, KJ eclipsed L.A.’s very own mayor, Eric Garcetti, as well some NBA legends and current players.

One minute KJ was quietly helping the NBA players union find a new executive director. The next, Sterling’s racist comments went viral and KJ was pressed by the players to be their voice as the league grappled with how to address the controversy.

It was not unlike what happened a little more than six years ago.

One minute KJ was sitting across from me at an Oak Park coffee shop telling me he was thinking of running for mayor. The next minute, I put that news on and boom – wealthy donors, excited voters, a swearing-in ceremony, the first African American mayor of Sacramento.

Each moment had a “How did that happen?” quality to it because Johnson exceeded every conceivable expectation of a former NBA player venturing into decidedly different arenas.

You can question whether the mayor of Sacramento should be spending his time so prominently involved in an issue that has nothing do with Sacramento. But you’d be wasting your time.

You can ask what Johnson has accomplished as mayor, besides keeping the Kings from relocating and getting a new downtown arena. But you’d be missing the point.

In assessing Johnson’s impact and achievements – the Kings, the arena, leading the U.S. Conference of Mayors, pushing the NBA to ban Sterling – it’s impossible to separate the KJ personal style from the results.

His flaws are derived from being hypersensitive and viewing honest disagreement with him as a reason to mistrust someone or cut them out completely. He doesn’t build consensus in the way a much more accomplished politician like Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg would.

But Johnson’s virtues – and his vision for Sacramento – cannot be denied.

It’s hard to grasp that vision by listening to Johnson’s speeches. His State of the City address was more of a laundry list of projects, some of which he had little to do with.

No, to assess Johnson properly, one has to study his actions and his persona.

Johnson embodies a flattering version of Sacramento – one that is energetic, diverse and aspirational.

He is the most sought after speaker in the region and I’ve witnessed audiences respond enthusiastically to his energy and can-do attitude.

In keeping the Kings and pushing for a downtown arena – Johnson’s signature achievements – insiders say he was more than just a figurehead.

Johnson could stand in a room with very wealthy, powerful people and not flinch or shrink or stumble. He could read a room instinctively and listen carefully to many voices before crafting a message and selling it with the charm of the former elite NBA player that he is.

In his remarks before the NBA board of governors, Johnson made the case for Sacramento and got team owners to look past a faltering local economy and a Kings franchise that was an utter disaster – and to buy into his positive view of Sacramento.

The owners bought it, but they also bought into Johnson. The new Kings owners agreed to spend more than $500 million on the team, and will spend about as much around the arena, by buying into KJ’s vision of the city.

Prominent business leaders say Johnson is able to do what past mayors couldn’t – he is attractive to investors who can bring capital to Sacramento.

Johnson’s celebrity in the Sterling affair reflects positively on him personally and in his role as the mayor of Sacramento. His new post as leader of the U.S. Conference of Mayors creates the possibility of Johnson using his access to the White House and other corridors of power for the betterment of Sacramento.

Critics aside, many people feel good about him as the mayor. Questions of what he’ll do next can wait for another day. What he has done now is the story – in Sacramento and beyond.

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